BACKGROUND: Ample studies have shown the effectiveness of internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (iCBT) for anxiety disorders. These studies recruited their participants mainly from the community and, to a lesser extent, from within routine care services. Little is known about whether different recruitment strategies lead to different treatment effects. OBJECTIVE: This meta-analysis compared clinical results obtained in trials with recruitment from the community versus results obtained in trials with clinical service recruitment and explored factors that may mediate differences in treatment outcome. METHODS: We included randomized controlled trials in which the clinical effects of iCBT for anxiety disorders were compared with a control condition (waitlist controls or face-to-face cognitive behavioral therapy). We classified trials as open recruitment trials (recruitment from the community) or clinical service recruitment trials (recruitment through outpatient clinics). Pooled effect sizes based on measures examining anxiety symptoms, depressive symptoms, and quality of life were computed for each type of trial. Subgroup analyses examined whether clinical results from open recruitment trials differed from those obtained in clinical service recruitment trials. Additional analyses explored which demographic, clinical, and treatment-related factors contributed to differences in effect sizes of open recruitment versus clinical service recruitment trials. RESULTS: We included 42 studies with 53 comparisons (43 open recruitment comparisons and 10 clinical recruitment comparisons). Analyses of anxiety measures revealed, first, that iCBT open recruitment studies with waitlist control comparators showed a significantly higher effect size for decrease in anxiety symptoms than did those with clinical recruitment (Q=10.09; P=.001). This association between recruitment method and effect size was no longer significant in a multivariate metaregression with treatment adherence and exclusion of patients with depressive symptoms entered as additional predictors of effect size. Second, effect size for decrease in anxiety symptoms did not differ significantly between clinical recruitment and open recruitment studies with face-to-face cognitive behavioral therapy comparators. The effects of open recruitment trials and clinical recruitment trials did not differ significantly for the secondary outcomes, compared with face-to-face cognitive behavioral therapy and waitlist controls. CONCLUSIONS: iCBT was effective in samples recruited in clinical practice, but effect sizes were smaller than those found in trials with an open recruitment method for studies with waitlist control comparators. Hence, for patients with anxiety disorders in routine care, the impact of iCBT may not be as positive as for study participants recruited from the community. The difference between open recruitment trials and clinical service recruitment trials might be partly explained by patients' greater therapy adherence in open recruitment trials and the stricter exclusion of patients with severe depressive symptoms in these studies. Since most trials in this meta-analysis applied an open recruitment method, more studies with routine care populations are needed to further validate these findings.
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- anxiety disorders
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- recruitment method